Spoiler alert: if you’re a Survivor fan and you haven’t watched last night’s episode, read no further.
I don’t watch much reality TV, but I make a big exception for Survivor. I watched season 2 in college, my wife got me back into it years ago—and now it’s a family affair. (In the summer of 2020, when camp was cancelled due to COVID, we needed to find something to do. ANYTHING. Since Survivor was cancelled, we decided to play our own version at home. Our kids designed the immunity challenges, donned the gear, and even made their own fake idols. I experienced a new form of pride and joy when our 9-year-old blindsided me on her way to victory.)
On last night’s episode, we saw that the first two contestants voted out to join the jury were Black—and it looked like the other two Black players would be next to join them. When one of the women raised the possibility of bias, a white man defended himself: “I’m not racist!”
Bias doesn’t require hostility. Just as you can show gender bias without being sexist, you can show racial bias without being racist.
Psychologist Marilynn Brewer finds that the majority of discrimination stems not from outgroup hate, but from ingroup love. It’s basic homophily and similarity-attraction: we feel most at ease with people who are like us. You don’t have to be prejudiced against another group to bond more quickly with your own group.
Think about a boys’ club—say, when male executives invite their male mentees on a golf outing. Even if they’re not misogynists, they’re depriving women of the opportunity to network and learn. By favoring their ingroup, they’re disadvantaging the outgroup. If they won’t golf with women, they shouldn’t golf with men either. As psychologist Brian Lowery put it to me, “Providing benefits to people like you excludes people not like you.”
Ingroup favoritism is a form of nepotism. We often fail to recognize it as a bias, and the consequences can be devastating. In a classic simulation, the Nobel laureate economist Thomas Schelling demonstrated that if even some white people prefer to have next door neighbors who are also white, you can end up with a racially segregated neighborhood. It’s not prejudice against other races; it’s just favoritism toward their own. But it’s enough to deny a whole group access to the neighborhood.
That’s my hypothesis about what happened on Survivor. White contestants were in the majority, and however well-intentioned they were, similarity made it a little easier to trust their own group. Their alliances with Black players didn’t end up being quite as strong, and Black players ended up on the chopping block.
When someone suggests that you might be displaying bias, it doesn’t mean they’re accusing you of animosity against another tribe. They might just be implying that even if it’s inadvertent, you’re giving preference to your tribe. Ingroup favoritism exists in every society, and we’ve all been guilty of it. If you can’t see it, you won’t fix it.
The tribe has spoken.